PTSD, depression among challenges for health care workers

As hospitals became the front lines in the war against COVID, doctors and nurses have been the soldiers on the battlefield, attacking an enemy they’d never seen before. And like any battle-weary soldier, the impact of these experiences can be devastating and long lasting.

“Our physicians and our front-line providers are seeing patients who are dying alone,” said Dr. Amy Frieman, chief wellness officer at Hackensack Meridian Health. “We were counting body bags and making that sure we had space in our morgues.”

Dr. Svetlana Zakharchenko is an emergency room physician at Hackensack University Medical Center, one of the hardest hit hospitals in the coronavirus response.

“There was absolutely no release and no end to this, it seemed. Every day was scarier and scarier. Stressful is an understatement. There was truly some days that I felt despair,” Zakharchenko said.

Frieman says we could be seeing a significant amount of post-traumatic stress disorder in front-line care providers.

“Research coming out of Wuhan, showing up to 70% of their front-line providers showing symptoms of depression. A high number of people showing anxiety as well,” said Frieman.

After the SARS outbreak in Singapore in 2003, many front-line health care providers there experienced PTSD. Now that the first wave of this pandemic has crested, health care systems like Hackensack Meridian Health are putting mental health supports in place, anticipating the same response from their front-line workers.

“We have created a 24/7 support line that is actually manned by our behavioral health team. We’ve also started something that we’ve called Coping with COVID. It might be a group of nurses, or a group of physicians, or one particular unit — perhaps an emergency department staff or a COVID ICU staff — who comes together virtually. This is facilitated by a trained behavioral health provider. And they may talk about how to become more resilient; how to get through this together,” Frieman said.

“We organized group meetings with our colleagues where we had a professional present during the time. And she was able to address, from a very professional standpoint, all the fears and guilt that we were experiencing. I myself benefited so much from these original group sessions that I set up sessions myself with her individually, which was truly an amazing experience,” Zakharchenko said.

She worked through feelings of guilt over not ever being able to do enough for her patients who were dying alone, for her 3- and 5-year-old boys at home, or for her husband who was also battling a very severe case of COVID. He’s now healthy, and she’s learning to cope with what she can’t control.

“It’s like day and night. At this moment, especially with the professional help that we’ve gotten, and how guided we have been in the hospital, I feel we’re personally very lucky and very thankful to the response,” Zakharchenko said.

By all accounts there will be a second wave of this pandemic hitting in the fall. We’re going to need doctors and nurses operating at their peak, making mental health services so critical right now.